‘And do you know what the monsters and demons and rancid spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites the throats of the choirboys – that’s you, Oly. And the thing in the closet that makes the babies scream in the dark before it sucks their last breath – that’s me. And the rustling in the brush and the strange piping cries that chill the spine on a deserted road at twilight – that’s the twins singing practice scales while they look for berries.’
Geek Love is the story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil, the mother, used to be a geek, biting the heads from chickens. After a stint training on the trapeze (cut short following a fall that broke her nose and collarbones), Lil married Aloysius Binewski, owner of the carnival.
When Al inherited the carnival, aged twenty-four, the business was in decline. Determined not to allow it to fold, he came upon a brilliant idea: to breed his own freak show. Lil was happy to be part of the scheme.
As she often said, ‘What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?’
They experimented with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.
Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers.
Arturo, the eldest, has flippers that protrude straight from his torso in place of hands and feet. He’s displayed naked in an aquarium.
His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks.
Arturo rules the roost. He checks the books; is obsessed with making more money than the twins, and eventually begins his own cult. He is cruel and controlling. But his sister Olympia, our narrator, dotes on him, often aiding his schemes out of her desire to be useful to him regardless of any moral or ethical standpoint.
The majority of the novel is set during the height of the freakshow and follows the family as Al and Lil’s power declines and Arturo’s increases. It shows family dynamics and how familial love is strong enough to inspire both incredible loyalty and utter hatred. For Oly and Elly and Iphy, it is also a coming-of-age story.
There’s also an important sub-plot set, so it seems, in the present day of the book. (It was originally published in 1989/90 (USA/UK).) Olympia also narrates these sections but now as an adult with a college-age daughter of her own.
Olympia – now going by the name Hopalong McGurk – owns a run-down boarding house in Portland, which she, her daughter Miranda, and Crystal Lil all live in. Crystal Lil, mostly deaf and completely blind, manages the place; she has no idea that her daughter and granddaughter live in the same building. Miranda is a student at the Art Institute who’s won prizes for her drawings. Having been raised by nuns, Miranda has no idea who Crystal Lil and Olympia really are, she’s just landed a rent-free room which she doesn’t question.
Olympia follows them both, which is how we learn that Miranda works at the Glass House Club, a strip club with a twist:
She was down to her G-String with the fluffy lace plume on her rump, she had her thumbs hooked in it, looking over her shoulder at the crowd, she was waving her ass in a slow semaphore of invitation. The frowning blonde at the table had her chin in her hand. The men were hooting and grunting and watching with smiles. I held my breath, blinked, and she pulled the plume down, unsnapped the G-string and whipped it off with a flourish, waving her ass still, her head tipped up and an unmistakable giggle bubbling out of her as she revealed the thin, curling tail that jutted out from the end of her spine and bounced just above her round buttocks.
This is how Miranda meets Mary Lick, heiress to Lickety Split Food. She offers to pay for an operation to have Miranda’s tail removed and pay her ten thousand dollars for going through the procedure. Miranda is not Mary Lick’s first client:
Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them…If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful.
There is so much to explore/discuss/challenge in Mary Lick’s view on gender, power and sexuality. Olympia, however, sets out to deal with her – and protect Miranda – in a more physical way.
Geek Love is a complex, but very readable, portrait of familial love. Dunn’s overarching themes are big ones – sibling relationships; mothers and daughters; capitalism; the patriarchy; money and power – but she explores them through a dynamic that many readers will recognise. Indeed, it was very tempting to begin the review with the opening of Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’.
Olympia narrates from a position of love but, despite her adoration of Arturo, she’s also able to articulate his faults clearly – often she’s on the receiving end of his sharp tongue. Dunn also uses her to show how the balance of power can change, evidenced in the present day sections and the way Olympia’s reinvented herself and has, in an unusual way, become the family matriarch.
The novel’s driven by the reader’s desire to know what Arturo will do next – and how his trajectory will end – but also by the present day story, which is positioned between lengthy stints in the sideshow.
Geek Love is a cult classic. The reissue, published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the novel’s original publication, comes adorned with a list of celebrities who ‘loved’ the book. They include Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Jeff Buckley. Given that they’re some of my favourite musicians, it’s no surprise that I read and loved this book some years ago. However, now I’m dissecting it as part of my PhD research, the depth of ideas contained in it are clear and it’s no surprise that the novel has endured.
Geek Love is a brilliant book, everyone should read it.
(If that isn’t enough to convince you, I’ll be publishing an essay next week on my PhD blog, looking at the representation of women in the novel.)
Thanks to Abacus for the review copy.